Barb Eyre, left, and Ellen Cox share a moment as they discuss an upcoming class for families with members struggling with mental illness. 

Two Green Valley mothers have bonded over a shared experience: both are the parents of sons who’ve struggled with serious mental illness for years. They’ve footed the bills when their children needed care, watched them get better and relapse and eventually made their way to a self-help organization that's enabled them to better cope with the stress and strain.

“We’re on the same journey,” said Barb Eyre, taking the hand of her friend Ellen Cox, who introduced Barb to NAMI, the National Alliance for Mental Illness. The organization, founded in 1979, addresses the issue in many ways. Most relevant to the two women was the Family-to-Family class for families, partners, and close friends of adults with mental illness – conditions complicated by their sons’ abuse of alcohol and drugs.

They call the class, which they attended in Tucson, a life-changing experience and want to spread the word to others. “NAMI is many things: education, information, support and advocacy,” said Eyre, a former elementary school teacher from Oregon.

“My husband and I trained in the course,” said Cox, the mother of a 42-year-old son who has bipolar disorder. He had his first psychiatric breakdown two weeks after graduating from high school while the family was living in Helena, Montana. Lots of ups and downs followed as the family attempted to find the proper treatments.

“They take a lot of time, emotion and energy and money. It’s hard on a family,” said Cox, an artist who eventually discovered NAMI and a class that was both informative and supportive. She and her husband later became Family-to-Family instructors. Cox put in a decade as an instructor, but has since retired and turned the reins over to another class leader, Laurie Litzenhiser, who will launch a 12-week course in January.

The class, the first of its kind in Green Valley, is free but Eyre, whose son has a form of schizophrenia, said attendees must commit to all sessions.

“You need to know the whole picture,” she said of the class.

“It’s a weighty tome,” she said of the course manual which has current information about schizophrenia, major depression, panic disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder and border line personality. There are also updates on medications and side effects plus current research on the biology of brain disorders.

Eyre, who later formed a support group with members of her class, said it’s been a “huge bonding experience” for parents also needing to emphasize their own well-being. Both women have suffered from anxiety over the years, especially when their sons have been “symptomatic.” Hence the value of a compassionate support group, they say.

“It’s called self-care,” said Cox, adding that her son has stabilized recently thanks to a course of electroconvulsive shock therapy. Eyre said her son also is in “a much better place” in his life.

With the classes behind them, both moms look to see small, positive steps forward for their sons.

“I keep my fingers crossed that he’s learning to get the help he needs and can take care of himself in the future,” Cox said.

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